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Shields, Brooks Debate New Polls, Rev. Wright and Gas Tax

May 2, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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With North Carolina and Indiana preparing to vote, columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss if Rev. Wright, the gas tax holiday or the economy may prove decisive in Tuesday's balloting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, the week started with this storm over Jeremiah Wright. David, how has Barack Obama weathered the storm?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: He’s been hurt, no question about it. If you look at the national polls, Hillary Clinton is now ahead. If you look at polls in places like Indiana, Hillary Clinton is now ahead.

He’s been hurt. And this is the first time we’ve really seen some movement in a week.

And what strikes me about this is he was with hurt the second time the Wright story came about because of Wright’s appearances in the National Press Club and elsewhere. He was not hurt the first time.

When all the Wright videos appeared on YouTube, there was no evidence that Obama was hurt by that alliance then. So why was he hurt now and not then?

And I think it’s because the underlying structure of the Obama support is a little weaker, that he seems a little — he lost in Pennsylvania, he’s really not explained how he’s going to change Washington. And so the underlying momentum isn’t there.

And that having been said, I still think he’s going to get the nomination, but this has been the first week where you really begin to see movement away from him.

Wright speaks out, Obama suffers

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Jeremiah Wright needs for Obama to lose so he can justify his own anger and hostile bitterness against the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, how do you see the Wright effect?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think it was best said by Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. He said of Barack Obama, "His campaign is not being derailed by his race. It's being derailed by a person who doesn't want him to prove that we have made great advances in this country," that Jeremiah Wright needs for Obama to lose so he can justify his own anger and hostile bitterness against the United States.

I really think what we saw in Reverend Wright -- David spoke of the March speech in Philadelphia, which was widely praised. And in that speech, Barack Obama was loyal to an old friend who had said things that he found objectionable, but he refused to sever relations with him.

That old friend rewarded that loyalty by disloyally taking it to an entirely different level and, in the process of so doing, of accusing Obama of being rather venal himself.

And so he had no choice, Judy, but to sever himself. I thought he did it well, except for two factors.

One, there was a faint whiff of victim about Obama in his statement about Reverend Wright, that this had happened to me, instead of just keeping it on the facts themselves, that this is what he said, and it was so objectionable.

And, second, I just thought that the personalizing of it was unhelpful to him. But Reverend Wright did him a favor by coming out and doing it so publicly, so blatantly that it left him with no alternative.

DAVID BROOKS: This is stuff Reverend Wright's been saying for 20 years. I mean, the stuff he said was not new. I mean, I presume, when you go to a liberation theology church, you're going to get some liberation theology.

You're going to get what Wright offered, which is sort of an extreme version of separatism, whites and blacks clap differently to music, whites and blacks think differently, have different learning styles, a very separatist ideology.

And that was part of the church he went to. And that's part of the things we have to understand about Obama, that he sat in that church and he wasn't offended by all that.

Now, you take that as an element of Obama's character and the reasons he went to that church are something we can all speculate without really knowing.

But, nonetheless, if you look forward, and you look at Obama's whole character, who do you think is going to help reconcile the races more in this country than Barack Obama? Very few people.

So I think, as someone, you can say, "Obama went to this church." You wonder why he went to this church. What kind of statement was he making?

Nonetheless, if you take the totality of his life, this is a guy who's built it around reconciliation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the timing here -- well, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: And Barack Obama would not be the first person to have gone to a church and not heeded what was said in the pulpit. I mean, many of us do it every week. We are urged, exhorted for certain behavior, which we never do measure up to, whether it's different behavior from that.

But I do agree with David, that Barack Obama's life is so entirely different from the message of separatism. I mean, he has been the ultimate integrationist.

And that's what his candidacy does represent, really a repudiation of the sense of blacks as victims, that this is a society that has had grave faults and grave shortcomings and grave injustices, but has moved to remedy them and that he, in his career, is an example of that improvement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, is it an oversimplification just to talk about how this has hurt Obama with whites?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, I think there's been some protests. I mean, within the black community and the black churches, as we've been reminded, there is incredible diversity.

And so some people were angry with Wright. I think a lot of people in the African-American community were angry with Wright. Some wish Obama had stuck with Wright. I think there you just have to say it's diversity.

The crucial issue for whites and the crucial issue in the fall is not going to be about race. The crucial issue, is Obama clearly -- is he a post-partisan figure? Is he something new? Or is he simply a traditional liberal of the sort we have known before who wouldn't be offended by some of the stuff he may have heard at that church?

Is he McGovern? Is he Dukakis? Is he someone who's not going to appeal to a broad sector of the electorate?

So it's not about race. It's not even about anti-Americanism or patriotism. It's about people trying to get a sense of who this guy is. Is he something new? Or is he a more conventional liberal?

Obama hurt but still favored

David Brooks
The New York Times
The psychology of the race has changed, but the structure of it hasn't changed. Obama is still the likely nominee. He's become for those reasons the more likely nominee.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, we're heading into the next two primaries, Tuesday, Indiana, North Carolina. Where do things stand?

And, you know, we look at the polls. We know that Clinton's moved up, Obama's been hurt. But what are you looking for on Tuesday?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, obviously, the results. I mean, if Obama were to win both of them, and I think that's unlikely, I think that the race would be effectively over. Senator Clinton might not know it's over, but I think it would be over. I think you'd see a flood, a literal flood of super-delegates. Judy, you have to think...

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean "over"?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the nomination would be, for all practical purposes, in Obama's hands, that -- now, I don't -- right now, I do not expect him to win both. I think David's right. I think Indiana, that she has a solid lead. His lead is diminished in North Carolina.

But if he were to win both of them, the super-delegates -- you have to understand this. When Hillary Clinton was the front-runner and the inevitable, that was the word, nominee, the consensus in the press, all of 2007, the Clinton campaign, spearheaded by the former president, leaned on the super-delegates to endorse.

They wanted to run up -- they were her ace in the hole. They're turning into a deuce in the hole right now, even as he's gone through this rough patch, and a terrible rough patch it's been. It's been seven weeks of rough patch, really, for Obama. He's continued to pick up super-delegates.

I mean, people like Baron Hill in Indiana, conservative district, Ben Chandler in Kentucky...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressmen.

MARK SHIELDS: ... have both -- and Blue Dog Democrats, that if, in fact, he were to win, those people who had resisted the blandishments, the overtures of the Clintons to endorse as super-delegates, basically not enthusiastic for Clinton. They want a reason or excuse to back Obama. If he were to win both states, they would flood in his direction.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that. The psychology of the race has changed, but the structure of it hasn't changed. Obama is still the likely nominee. He's become for those reasons the more likely nominee.

Something still, even after all that's happened in the past seven weeks, Pennsylvania and all that, something big still would have to happen. To me, if Clinton won in North Carolina, then that would open a lot of people's eyes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it would.

DAVID BROOKS: That would show things have fundamentally turned. But absent that, I presume she will keep going, because she's got West Virginia and Kentucky and places she does well.

But I still think it's really something dramatic, North Carolina -- the only way this race would fundamentally change this Tuesday.

Gas Tax Holiday

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
What Obama ought to do is say: This is the worst of Washington politics. This is what it is. This is bait-and-switch. This is Washington politics at its cheapest. They really think you're dumb.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This argument they're having this week, David, on the gasoline tax. Hillary Clinton, in effect, on the side with John McCain, arguing this gas tax holiday is a good idea. Barack Obama, on the other hand, saying this is just pandering; it doesn't add up to anything.

Is this affecting what voters think about these candidates?

DAVID BROOKS: Maybe, and, in this case, Obama is absolutely right. I don't know any economists who don't think he's right. I'm sorry to say that McCain has joined Hillary in the axis of opportunism.

It's a sham issue. For McCain, it's horrific, because it's un-conservative in so many ways to give away this little gift, a tiny, little trivial gift, in the middle of the summer of $30 bucks, or whatever it would be a month, to really insult modern economics by assuming that, if you cut the prices, you know, you're going to have increased demand.

We're not going to produce more gasoline because of the refinery problem. It's not going to make a big difference in anybody's pocketbook at the end of the day. It's a sham.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Could it have an effect in Indiana and North Carolina?

MARK SHIELDS: It could, if Obama phrased it differently. Obama has made the argument that David did, which is very thoughtful, logical, cerebral argument.

What Obama ought to do is say: This is the worst of Washington politics. This is what it is. This is bait-and-switch. This is Washington politics at its cheapest. They really think you're dumb. They think you're so dumb that they can buy you off.

We're a country -- everybody who drives a car knows that the roads in this country are in disrepair, that the bridges are in disrepair. What we're going to do is take 300,000 jobs out for this little gimmick of people working because that's where the gas tax goes, to rebuild the highways of this country and to maintain the bridges of this country.

And he ought to do it just on the basis and tie it -- this is the same kind of politics that had a "Mission Accomplished" sign up five years ago, that said there were weapons of mass destruction. That's what's wrong.

And I'm telling you what you don't want to hear. You want someone that tells you what you want to hear? You've got McCain, and you've got Clinton.

And that's -- if he did it in those terms, then if he did lose, he still would have lost standing on a principle and being different. I mean, it's a different thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're saying the way he's doing it now, it's ineffective?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the way he's doing it not is just making the logical argument sort of, you know, economists say, and it isn't a good argument. I mean, I think if he classed it in those passionate terms and really challenged them.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, they're dueling ads. And right now, I think people are smart enough to see it.

But when Mark used that word "passionate," that something you're beginning to hear about Obama, that he is incredibly calm guy, which is true. He's a calm guy. And that's, I think, one of his attractive features.

But some of the people, a lot of the people are now saying it's become a hindrance that, whether it was Wright or whether it's this week, his calmness has restrained him from fighting back in the way a lot of people want to see some passion. And that's become a theme, I've noticed, in some of the commentary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You used to hear the word "cool" about him.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and I think it's a great trait in a president.

MARK SHIELDS: It is. And it's incredibly helpful, Judy, when he was under attack by both Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, the first 40 minutes of that ABC debate, he was incredibly cool. He never lost his cool. And I think, in that case, it's a real plus.

DAVID BROOKS: I thought it was a minus in that case.


Economy still uneven

David Brooks
The New York Times
We have vastly misreported this story. The fact that we're scuffling along at really no growth means that, while there are some sectors that are really doing terribly -- housing and all the rest -- there are some sectors doing quite well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The economy, a little bit of good news, still job loss last month, Mark. Is this having an effect on this Democratic race? Is it something we just wait for the general election?

MARK SHIELDS: I shouldn't begin by saying "economists tell me," but economists tell me we need 127,000 jobs created every month, given the number of Americans coming into the job market, coming out of school, moving from military, and returning to the job market.

And when you get, you know, this is -- we're hemorrhaging at a slower rate. It's not going to make any political difference right now. It takes a full quarter of news, good news or bad news, to sink in and to change people's attitudes.

The economy was actually improving on election day of 1992 and before it, when George Herbert Walker Bush lost to Bill Clinton, but voters still felt that it was bad.

DAVID BROOKS: I expected a cataclysm. You've been hearing the commentary, the press coverage, the candidates. "We're in a recession. Great waving walls of debt coming down to us."

We have vastly misreported this story. The fact that we're scuffling along at really no growth means that, while there are some sectors that are really doing terribly -- housing and all the rest -- there are some sectors doing quite well -- manufacturing, export-related sectors doing quite well.

And that means it will be a little less of an issue, I think.

MARK SHIELDS: More jobs laid off in manufacturing than any month in the last five years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're not suggesting the press got something wrong, are you, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, a little.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, David Brooks, Mark Shields, have a very good weekend.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you very much.